In the '90s, many were bigger, but few were better than Suede at their best, led by the dynamic duo of "glamly androgynous Dickensian whippet" Brett Anderson and "Danger High Voltage" whirlwind guitarist Bernard Butler. Just don't call 'em Britpop.
The Post Bernard Butler Era
Faced with Butler's exit and the circling of vultures waiting to pick the flesh from their bones, the remaining trio did what any sensible newly-knighted heroes would do and hired a 17-year-old to replace him. And so, once he'd asked his Mum's permission, Richard Oakes became Suede's new guitarist. All aboard for rock'n'roll oblivion then!
No one expected Suede to recover from Butler's departure. The press mocked both their schoolboy saviour and Anderson's increasingly familiar lyrical lexicon of "nuclear skies", "pigs", and "council estates". Oh, how they laughed when 1996's third album Coming Up not only outsold its predecessors, but had five -- count 'em five -- UK Top 10 hits. It's a distinctly more commercial sound, the giant rainbow after DMS's tempestuous storms. Like the Manics' own '96 album Everything Must Go, it sounds like a band relieved to have survived the rain. There's a definite air of optimism, bruised euphoria, a defiant spirit unwilling to stay down. It was written with the intent that any of its tracks could be a potential single, a jukebox duke, and in that respect it's a great success. Newly strengthened by fifth element Neil "Molly" Codling, the "You're on OUR Manor" gang mentality was back in black.
From the sparky goldrush opener "Trash", to the snotty cheek of "Lazy" and the cocksure swagger of "The Beautiful Ones", it's a real call to arms, with a "Let's storm the palace" roar. Many grumbled at the time -- and still do -- that Suede had traded deep art for shallow pop to survive ("Film star / Propping up the bar / Driving in a car"), but dig deeper and the intellect and soul are all still there. "To the Sea" is a gorgeous, "Thunder Road"-esque piano-led middle finger to inherited curses ("Into the sea we'll bleed"), whilst the lush, sunny "The Chemistry Between Us" is Bowie's "Kooks" rewritten for the ravers ("We are young and not tired of it"). Its infectious charm is only further enhanced by flashes of genuine warmth and humour, like the lines, "Uncle Teds in their legendary vests / Helping out around the disabled."
The goodship Suede seemed unsinkable post-Coming Up but the holes began to appear with 1998's Head Music. The band later revealed it was recorded amid health problems, sacks of smack n' crack, rivers of booze, and, generally, speedballs of confusion. It followed the suggestion that art is "not finished just abandoned". Listening to oodles of Prince, Massive Attack, and Tricky, and trying desperately to slip both into their own skins and the by now wheezin' n' bloated behemoth that was Britpop, Head Music was a bold stride into new territory, clankin', choppy robotic funk produced by Steve Osborne (Placebo, Happy Mondays). The four singles still sound luminous -- the muscular, whip-cracking Pistols' snarl of "Electricity" and "Can't Get Enough" and the Duran-ish and massively popular "She's in Fashion" and "Everything Will Flow", but the rest is an admirable, though awkward, mess.
There's ideas aplenty, but the quality control dial flies so up and down it snaps off. It's a detached, cold, and overly long experience which ultimately fails to convince as a cohesive album as its predecessors had. It also contains the unthinkable -- boring Suede songs ("Asbestos", "Hi-Fi"). Even the fans cringed at lines like "She live in a house / She stupid as a mouse." Tongue in cheek, clearly, but this is the man who wrote "To the Birds", for God's sake. Having said that, I'm one of only two people who secretly enjoys the batshit crazy "Elephant Man". The other being Neil Codling, who wrote it. Elsewhere, "He's Gone" bravely tries to contact the spirits of those early b-sides, whist the fleeting "Space Oddity"-esque "Union Jack" spits some parting vitriol, though for many the spell had been broken. Head Music flew to Number 1 on the back of Coming Up's meteoric success, but Suede left the twentieth century on stormy waters.
The world had indeed turned by the time of 2002's A New Morning. Unforgivable artwork aside, it's a warm embrace of a record compared to its glacial predecessor. Newly inspired by sobriety, Lou Reed, and Bob Dylan, it's Suede's (gulp) "pastoral" record. Considered by its own makers as "A Suede record too far", it actually stands far taller than Head Music. Much of the critical malice directed towards this record was aimed at the lead single, the cheery, sincerely optimistic "Positivity". Combined with the sight of a tanned n' healthy, freshly blond Anderson in the video, fans kicked off their nappies in disgust and refused to have anything to do with it or its Mothership. It was akin to seeing Kurt Cobain smiling on the cover of Men's Health, flexing his dukes with a rippling six-pack beneath the headline "Train Like Cobain!" "Judas!" they cried.
Another difficult birth production-wise, it's clear now to see how Anderson was torn between sticking to the classic, glam Suede sound with diminishing returns ("Streetlife") or making more personal, introspective music as he would on his subsequent solo records. By far the most rewarding tracks are these reflective, folky ones. The sweeping, intricate "Lonely Girls" (which echoes Marianne Faithful's "As Tears Go By"), the Beatles' hippy shake of "Lost in TV", and the hazy, Nick Drake-like dewdrop dawn that is "Morning" are all highlights. The swaying, anthemic "When the Rain Falls" closes the album proper with a sigh -- "And I watch it all fall so hard." Alas, this, to the man on the street at least, wasn't "The Suede Sound". But, as Sid Vicious so memorably mused, "I've met the man on the street and he was a c*nt." So after four best-selling albums, A New Morning skipped, flower in its hair, to the dizzy heights of Number 24 and the dream was effectively oh-vah.
Suede fell on their sword following a stock-taking greatest hits in 2004. They may not have completely kicked the world's arse or "Spanked America like a petulant child", but at least they gave music a bloody good thrashing with a microphone. Today, the rebirth of British guitar pop which Suede helped resuscitate that night in Alexandra Palace is now generally remembered for the multi-million selling Blur and Oasis. But the way Suede bowed out stuck not just in the craw of its fans, but clearly within the band members themselves. There was unfinished business.
In 2010, they reformed (sans Butler), initially for a one-off teenage cancer benefit, but following a rapturous response, they've kept their gumshields in for an extended resurrection, including stellar appearances at Coachella and the 20,000 capacity London O2 arena. These five, sparkling, lovingly assembled -- and charitably cheap -- reissues will hopefully help preserve some of the best pop music of the last 20 years and introduce a "New Generation" (sorry) to one of the last, and lost, great British guitar bands. In the '90s, many were bigger, but few were better than Suede at their best.